Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett bookend the playwriting spectrum: O’Neill uses lots of words, while Beckett is a minimalist.
Works by each debuted in the late 1950s: O’Neill’s Hughie (a big role for one older actor with a small part for another) and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a piece for a solo actor and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Each 45-minute piece is about a man at the end of life who fears what comes next, but these characters are dramatically different.
What makes this double-bill at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company so compelling is the fact that actor Joneal Joplin plays both parts. (He was Ebenezer Scrooge at the Cincinnati Playhouse from 1997 to 2004.)
Joplin is equally at ease playing Erie Smith, O’Neill’s loquacious Broadway gambler, mourning the death of a night clerk who has listened to his bullshit for years, as he is portraying the near-silent Krapp, Beckett’s creation who listens to a tape he made 30 years earlier at 39, then records his current thoughts.
Smith (Joplin in a graying Elvis wig) is a one-note character, seeing his own fading existence in the death of another, fearful that if he stops talking, he might disappear, too. Although Beckett’s Krapp (no wig) speaks few words and wanders slowly around the barren stage (long pauses occur when he shuffles offstage for a box or a glass of water), Joplin’s performance as the character wears a cloak of regret and nostalgia, like a slowly ticking clock winding down. “Past midnight,” he observes. “Never knew such silence.”
The power of silence is central to Beckett, and Joplin uses it to great effect — for humor and for pathos as he recalls a woman he once loved. Krapp’s Last Tape is a brief masterpiece, and Joplin’s performance makes this a theatrical event to cherish.
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